The three-year degree

College shouldn’t take four years, writes Lamar Alexander on Newsweek.

Hartwick college, a small liberal-arts school in upstate New York, makes this offer to well-prepared students: earn your undergraduate degree in three years (six semesters) instead of four, and save about $43,000—the amount of one year’s tuition and fees. A number of innovative colleges are making the same offer to students anxious about saving time and money.

Here’s a discussion of the three-year degree.

There’s no question that well-prepared students who know what they want to study can complete a degree in three years. That’s a huge cost savings for students — and colleges save when their facilities are in full use over the summer. But many students lack the academic skills and the direction to finish in three years — or four, for that matter. Perhaps colleges should use off-campus, online learning for students who need real-world time to clarify their goals.

It’s my college reunion this weekend. Many of my  ’74 classmates are winding down their first career and thinking about what to do next. Or they’ve lost their jobs and moved to Plan B. I’m glad I had four years of college — and glad I didn’t linger there too long.

About Joanne


  1. I’ve always promoted the 2 + 2 – 2 years of community/tech college, followed, if desired, by 2 years at a transfer school. For about 1/2 the students, this makes more financial sense than fiddling around, changing majors, getting wasted/skipping classes/”finding oneself”, or in some other way, slowing down the process of preparing for life.

    Of course, this isn’t popular with guidance counselors, who pride themselves on how many students they can “get into” prestigious colleges. They never subtract the ones who flunk out, or just don’t finish.

    It also isn’t popular with parents who want to brag about their offspring’s academic success.

  2. Here is another ’74 grad who is winding down her second career and planning the next one. Cheers.

  3. Most of my students who come from a community college wind up taking longer and spending more money because the advisers at their community colleges are incompetent, and they have not taken classes that work for their major.

  4. Deirdre Mundy says:

    I could see this working for some kids, but if you want a rigourous core curriculum AND a major, you really need 4 years! (At my college, the Core took up roughly 2.5 years by itself… and it was worth every minute….)

  5. I guess I split the difference (sort of); I finished in 7 semesters, with the final one being just a little bit of finishing up.  This was the result of having 30 credits before I enrolled as a freshman (AP and other).

    Most good students could probably manage this if they go to a school system with a good AP program.  Then again, solid prep (AP or not) would obviate the remediation which so many universities waste time and money on.  Maybe it devolves to the deficiencies of K-12 after all.

  6. The article has a number of errors, or at least, statements made overly strongly.

    This one: “Former George Washington University president Stephen J. Trachtenberg estimates that a typical college uses its facilities for academic purposes a little more than half the calendar year. “While college facilities sit idle, they continue to generate maintenance, energy, and debt-service expenses that contribute to the high cost of running a college,” he has written.”

    sounds absurd to anyone who spends time at a large state school. First, there’s nothing idle during summer session. Colleges use that time to bring in international students for mini-terms, seminars for professionals, high schooler programs, etc. All of these are cash cows. The schools also keep trying to get students to take courses over the summer to alleviate their overcrowding. The UC system has been trying to force real undergrad coursework into the summer session for years now, but they have a whole host of problems: the students don’t want to get out in 3 years, so they use summer session to lighten a normal term load, or to make up a deficient grade; professors don’t want to be forced to teach during it, and no one wants to pay for it, when they could be using that time to work at a job.

    But businesses, too, have this overhead problem: those darn people won’t work weekends! The nerve! No, if universities have a problem affording their facilities, the solution is to stop building more of them, creating more “centers”, more “institutes”, and to pare down their extra offerings like gyms, cafeterias, etc.

    To say Harvard is having a problem “because of the recession” was too much to take with a straight face. Harvard is having a problem because their own governing bodies abdicated due diligence for the dollar signs they saw hovering in the sky.

    But the bigger issue is the bucketing of big groups of people into the set “doesn’t get anything out of more coursework”.
    What coursework is that, exactly? If you are an engineering major, you can’t complete your degree in 3 years. Some schools offer 5 year master’s programs, others offer co-op where time is spent at a corporation, but the suggestion that they could finish early is mostly ludicrous. Folks heading to grad school in the sciences are expected to be taking grad level courses by their senior year; the rest are probably still taking significant courses during their 7th term if not their 8th.

    So who does that leave? It leaves watered down liberal arts and humanities majors. A rigorous liberal arts major would still need 4 years to gain depth and breadth. So the 3 year degree makes sense only because what college offers most people is so crippled anyway.

    Yes, college is too expensive. It’s even worse when you consider what a terrible education students receive for that money. A better solution would be to stop attending them, not to game the system even more to get a credential with as little expense as possible.

  7. tim-10-ber says:

    Ya know — it all depends on the degree. A typical liberal arts degree could possibly be completed in three years using the summers. A music degree with all the ensembles, practices and lessons for no credit might result in students needing the summer to get out in four years (my son is doing this). I love the combined BS/MA degrees over five years.

    I think whatever works for the student is best. Personally…because I worked full time after my sophomore year it took me six years to get my degree. It worked for me…

    Why the rush on the shorter time in school…there are options to the expensive private colleges…stay in state and go to a state school where the tuition room and board are less than half of the private schools and there might be a lottery scholarship to help defray the costs. Take advantage of what is available in one’s state…

  8. For those kids planning to go on to grad or professional schools, finishing undergrad degrees in 3 years makes sense. Lots of these kids enter with advanced standing (AP, IB or college courses) and could easily do it. Some 7-year pre-med/med school programs have existed for years; some of my kids’ classmates went to the Northwestern program, for example. Of course, these programs only take the top candidates, who must keep undergrad grades above a specified GPA in order to admitted to med school. I’m sure law schools could do the same thing (maybe they do), as well as other grad programs. It wouldn’t work for everyone, but I like having lots of options. Whether it’s k-12 or college, the one-size-fits-all model doesn’t fit lots of kids. As for the money angle, for the colleges, I’d like to see drastic cuts in staff (how many diversity officers and residence hall staff are really necessary?) and facilities. Kids who choose schools based on the student center, the cafeteria offerings and the fitness center probably don’t belong in college anyway.

  9. I like Linda F.’s idea. Better yet, extend this idea by making it the normal route to transfer from 4-year state colleges to graduate programs in top-end public institutions.

    You could probably save at least a half year by dropping some of the nonsensical upper division elective requirements.

  10. Richard Aubrey says:

    If, as with many schools, you pay tuition by the credit hour, the cost will be the same unless, 1, the unit cost drops, or, 2, you take fewer credits.
    That leaves living expenses. If you can get your education in three years, it means you’ll have a job–pre 2008, that is–a year sooner and not be taking living expenses out of the folks, the sock, or the burger joint income.
    Don’t see the economic benefit, and whatever cramming you have to do to get it done in three years might offset some of the benefit.

  11. Three years is standard in NZ for a basic BSc, BCom or BA. I actually did my engineering degree in 3 years by doing well enough at the end of school exams to skip the first year at university, and that degree was accredited by both the US’s Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineering (IEEE) and the UK’s Institue of Electrical Engineering (IEE).

    I think the difference is that NZ high schools cover more, eg we started learning calculus at high school when I was 15.

  12. George Larson says:

    Tracy W

    What proportion of New Zealand high school students start Calculus at 15?

  13. Michael E. Lopez, Esq. says:

    It’s little surprise that, as more and more students go to college and the total acquired knowledge/accomplishment values required for a degree necessarily drop to accommodate the skills of the broader population sample that an ever-larger number of students will be able to complete the new, easier standards in a shorter amount of time.

  14. George – calculus is part of the maths papers. A bit under 80% take the maths qualification at age 15 (year 11) and about 70% of the total student population pass (so about 90% who take the paper pass). It varies from year to year of course. See

  15. This wouldn’t work for a lot of engineering programs (and probably others, I wouldn’t know). Lots of them, such as aerospace engineering or specialized materials science programs, don’t have all that many students. This means that many courses are not even offered in the summer, since there aren’t enough students to take them. Some are only offered for one semester a year. It would be a nightmare to try and schedule a degree around all of those sections fixed in time. Plus, one little slip and you spend a whole extra semester (maybe two, in the worst case) waiting for that one course to finish your degree.

    Also, some of those degrees require an awful lot of hours, you couldn’t squeeze them into three years. I tested out of 9 hours, took 16-19 hours each semester and I still needed two summer sections to finish in four years. I guess Hartwick doesn’t offer any rigorous degrees…

  16. My engineering degree required 136 hours. I graduated from one of the smallest Division I schools. My story is similar to Rob’s. I came in with 19 AP hours, took 16-19 hours per semester (but no summer sections), and graduated in 4 years with 155 hours. Because my alma mater is so small, some majors have only a handful of students each year. For example, in 2007, there was exactly one BS in Materials Science awarded, and I can’t find any record of any BSMS being awarded in 2008. Because of the low number of students majoring in some fields, some classes are offered in only one semester every two years. Almost no courses are offered in summer sessions. It would be an absolute nightmare to try to schedule that into a three-year degree, not to mention taking 27 credit hours per semester!

  17. My engineering degree was 36 contact hours a week in the first professional year. (There’s an intermediate year where you take various freshman courses with some requirements in physics, maths and chemistry, that’s the year I skipped. Then there’s 3 professional years). The weekly hour total was lower the second two years, but still in the high 20s. The first professional year was fully scheduled, with no optional courses. The remaining two years were scheduled so you could take any combination of courses for your professional year from the engineering department you were doing your degree in, they also scheduled the courses so you could fit in the maths courses which were popular amongst the engineering students, and the philosophy department worked out its scheduling so you could take philosophy courses for your 2 options. So from a student’s point of view, scheduling was easy as long as you stuck to engineering, maths and philosophy. And the required course component from the engineering department was heavy enough that that was easy enough to do.

    Summers were spent doing the work experience component of the degree.


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